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SXSW Review: ‘When Angels Sing’

Aimed squarely at auds seeking family-friendly, holiday-themed entertainment, “When Angels Sing” is an innocuously pleasant trifle that likely would be more at home in the Hallmark Movie Channel lineup than on thousands of megaplex screens. Still, a limited fall theatrical release could be helpful in elevating the profile of this modestly affecting drama about a man who regains his love of Christmas years after his brother’s demise during the yuletide season. Pic could wind up being a popular VOD offering and DVD stocking-stuffer.

Actor-singer Harry Connick Jr. toplines as Michael Walker, an Austin college professor who’s hoping to find an affordable house for himself, his wife (Connie Britton) and their young son (Chandler Canterbury) before the home they’re currently renting is sold.

At the same time, Michael’s also plotting to once again avoid a Christmas reunion with his aging parents (Kris Kristofferson, Fionnula Flanagan) in San Antonio. Mind you, Michael has nothing against mom and dad. Indeed, he’s perfectly willing to spend Thanksgiving with the folks. But he’s been unwilling to celebrate the Dec. 25 holiday, or even put up Christmas decorations, ever since experiencing the childhood trauma of his brother’s accidental death — for which he feels responsible — on Christmas Day.

Michael can’t believe his good luck when a cheery old stranger named Nick (Willie Nelson) offers to sell him a spacious and beautifully appointed house at a fraction of the going cost for such a prime property. But, of course, there’s a catch: After the purchase, Michael discovers his home is located in a neighborhood world-famous for spectacular Christmas decorating — endless lights, live Nativity scenes, tons of fake snow, etc. — by the holiday-happy residents.

And his new neighbors, while cordial enough, can’t understand why Michael is behaving like a Grinch by not following their example.

Working from a script by Lou Berney, which in turn was adapted from a novel by Turk Pipkin, director Tim McCanlies (“The Iron Giant,” “Secondhand Lions”) maintains an even hand throughout, so that neither the moments of broad comedy nor the stretches of tearjerking sentimentality get out of hand.

Devotees of the Austin music scene may be amused at some of the bit players McCanlies has assembled; musicians ranging from Dale Watson and Marcia Ball to the Trishas and Charlie Sexton have wink-wink fleeting cameos. Texas music icon Lyle Lovett is quite funny in the somewhat larger role of a Christmas-spirited neighbor who’ll do anything, even lend Michael a decorated ladder, to spark his holiday spirit.

Speaking of music icons: Kristofferson strikes an effective balance of sagacity and melancholy as Michael’s father, while Nelson effortlessly generates so much easygoing good will that it’s easy to accept his ambiguous character might really be Santa Claus, or an angel, or whatever else Michael needs to jumpstart his seasonal ho-ho-hoing.

Connick is persuasive in a mostly non-singing role, especially in a scene (with the well-cast Canterbury) where Michael explains to his son the circumstances of his brother’s death. Britton capably handles the demands of a thinly written role.

Production values are more than adequate, though a scene shot in Canada that involves ice-skating looks a bit startling in the context of a pic otherwise filmed almost entirely in and around Austin.

When Angels Sing

Reviewed at SXSW Film Festival (Headliners), March 10, 2013. Running time: 86 MIN.

A Frank Miller Prods. production in associated with EYA Prods. Produced by Elizabeth Avellan, Fred Miller, Shannon McIntosh. Executive producers, Scott Rankin, Sharon Rankin. Co-producers, Dominic Cancilla, Turk Pipkin.

Directed by Tim McCanlies. Screenplay, Lou Berney, based on the book by Turk Pipkin. Camera (color), Kamal Derkaoui; editor, David Rosenblatt; music, Carl Thiel, Scott Warren; music supervisor, Roanna Gillespie; production designer, Christopher Stull; art director, Marcus LaPorte; set decorator, David Hack; costume designer, Kari Perkins; sound, Ben Lowry; assistant director, Bobby Bastarache; casting, J.C. Cantu.

With: Harry Connick Jr., Connie Britton, Chandler Canterbury, Fionnula Flanagan, Lyle Lovett, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson.

SXSW Review: 'When Angels Sing'

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